Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Fred Vargas: The Three Evangelists (1995)

Translation: Siân Reynolds, 2006
Edition: Vintage, 2007

Fred Vargas' only standalone novel so far is an intriguingly different detective story. This is clear from the bizarre opening, in which retired opera singer Sophia Siméonidis wakes one morning to find a new tree has been planted in her garden overnight. After worrying in silence for a month, she approaches her next door neighbours, three effectively unemployed historians (known as the Evangelists because their names are Matthias, Marc and Lucien) and a senior policeman forced into disgraced retirement. She asks them to pose as council workers and dig up the tree, once they suggest that it would be a good way for someone to hide a body.

When nothing is found, it seems as though the whole thing was just a fuss over nothing, until Sophia goes missing. Then the Evangelists begin looking into the mystery in earnest, feeling that their research skills and the fact that they are not policemen might make it possible to discover things that the official investigation cannot. While this latter reason is commonly used in crime fiction to justify amateur investigations, it is not one that would be recommended by police forces around the world!

The Three Evangelists is a character led detective story, with quirky touches like the tree lending extra interest. (I have been told that this sort of whimsy is typical of Vargas, and that to some it might become tiresome after two or three novels.) It has a brilliantly put together ending, where the pace suddenly picks up for the last few chapters and the solution is revealed.

Vargas has now won three of the last four International Crime Daggers, despite other writers translated into English having a higher profile. The Three Evangelists was the first of her winners, and clearly deserved to do so. This is not just a well written detective story, it is different from the usual run of things in the genre and so stands out all the more. I would rate it at 8/10.

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